Lynchings across the country had striking similarities

Two passengers on the trip take in the view of the Ohio River.
Two passengers on the trip from Duluth to Montgomery take in the view of the Ohio River near where Will James was lynched.
Evan Frost | MPR News

What would you write on a postcard of a lynching scene?

After the Duluth lynching in 1920, a graphic photograph of three black men killed by being hanged from a light pole was distributed as a postcard.

As a busload of people traveling from Duluth to Alabama learned Wednesday morning, the lynching postcard was not unique to Duluth. When Will James was hanged from a decorative metal arch that spanned the corner of 8th St. and Commercial Ave. in Cairo, Ill., "photographers sold postcards of his hanging," according to the book "Sundown Towns," by James Loewen.

An estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered for the lynching of Will James.
An estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered for the lynching of Will James on November 11, 1909 in Cairo, Ill.

Heidi Bakk-Hansen, one of the organizers of the trip, read from the book during the group's stop in Cairo and showed some of the photos of the James lynching, including one graphic photo of James's burned and mutilated head atop a poker.

Also like Duluth, the Cairo lynching drew thousands of people, and the circumstances around the claims of guilt were questionable. In Duluth, Irene Tuskin's claim that she was raped was questioned by the doctor who examined her. In Cairo, police told the gathering mob they weren't sure they had the right man who murdered a young woman. There was no tangible evidence, only a greyhound following a scent that led them to where James lived.

During the lynching era, "black people often were the targets of suspicion when a crime was alleged, and accusations against black people were rarely subjected to scrutiny," according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which has researched incidents of lynching across the country and developed their findings into the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opening Thursday in Alabama.

The idea that lynchings were more similar than not is also part of the message EJI is trying to communicate with the memorial.

The group's mantra is that "slavery never ended; it evolved." They believe that lynchings were acts of terror meant to persuade black people to leave communities and reinforce the inequality among races that has never been fully addressed. If lynchings were the first evolution of slavery after slavery was abolished, EJI argues, the current iteration of evolved slavery is a criminal justice system in which blacks are arrested and incarcerated at vastly disproportionate rates than whites.

"Everything didn't happen in the south and people need to know that," noted Portia Johnson, 77, a civil rights activist in Duluth who's on the bus trip to Alabama. "This [Cairo] is the north.

"If we are going to continue our work in Duluth for the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial, we need to be able to know about other places, because Duluth is not the only place."

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